Fly to the Sun With Bigger Lats

Man Thrust of the upper block to the chest in the gym

Key Points

  • Lats are instrumental to a balanced physique that screams, "I workout," to onlookers.

  • Knowing how the lats function is paramount to making them grow, along with proper fueling.

  • It's worth your time to master the basic lat exercises along with feeling them work if you want them to grow.

You want to get bigger lats. It's okay. Nearly everyone who even slightly considers themself a meathead wants bigger ones. One of the more impressive portions of any bodybuilding contest is when a competitor faces their back to the audience to hit the rear lat spread. When they hit the rear lat spread, the unassuming musculature flares out into an awe-inspiring pose positioning the competitor as if they were about to take flight, only the wings aren't made of wax, and there are no feathers.

Muscle makes these wings. Even more impressive is when a competitor performs a front lat spread, and the muscles peak around each corner of the torso showing themselves to the audience. Wowing an audience is a lofty goal, but there are other reasons to get bigger lats.

The lats are those big muscles of your back, and the starting point is just above your pelvis at the iliac crest when looking at the back and the lower four (or three) ribs in the front. They attach to your humerus, right near the ball that fits into the socket of your shoulder joint.

Your lats spread out like wings. Like Icarus's wings, they aren't real and won't allow for much flight, but the upside is they won't melt when you get close to the sun because you won't be able to fly close to it.

Lats Can Make or Break a Physique

Why should you care about lats? It bears repeating that they're huge, but that size is an advantage. Anyone who cares about their physique wants a narrow waist, toned legs, and good-looking shoulders. A literal personification of an X-Man because that description is apt for the letter X.

A good set of lats make a dress more flattering, a plain white tee worthy of getting grease stains under a vintage Chevy, and a dress shirt require tailoring.

So What Do The Lats Do?

Imagine your body. Next, imagine three infinite squares the size of a wall and razor-thin. The first square separates you at the waist, dividing you into top and bottom sections. This imaginary square is the transverse plane.

The next square slices vertically, in the middle, separating you into left and right sections. This is known as the sagittal plane, and many basic exercises move within that plane of motion.

Finally, imagine another square separating you into front and back sections. If you want to impress someone, this plane of motion is the coronal plane. For the sake of being apt, it's also known as the frontal plane.

Sagittal Plane

As stated, many exercises move along this plane, and the lats are no exception. They're responsible for extending your shoulder. The easiest way to think about extending your shoulder is to imagine standing still and subsequently elbowing someone in the gut. Alternatively, the bottom of the bench press puts the shoulder joint in extension, as does the end of a pull-up or a row.

Coronal Plane

Two main motions move along the coronal plane: abduction and adduction. Adduction is when you move toward your midline, and abduction is moving away from the midline. Remember all those imaginary lines? They converge in the middle. That's your midline.

Take the first three letters of "adduction," and you'd be adding something. That is, adding to your midline. To abduct is to take away. In this case, you are taking away from your midline.

Your lats facilitate adduction.

Transverse Plane

Do you remember adduction and abduction? Good, because those motions also work along the transverse plane. Stand up, straighten your arms like a zombie, and from there, spread them wide. That's horizontal abduction since you're moving them away from your midline. Bring your hands together in that same zombie-like position, and that's horizontal adduction because you're moving toward the midline.

Your lats facilitate transverse abduction.

Everything Between

Your shoulder joint has a big range of motion, and the lats are instrumental in moving your shoulder joint along that range of motion by way of extension. For example, in a pull-up, your shoulder joint starts in flexion while hanging from the bar and moves into extension upon execution of the exercise.

Move your hands wider when you execute the pull-up, and you're adding more adduction to the movement.

The same goes for barbell and dumbbell rowing. The hand position on the weight yields a different position of movement between the sagittal and coronal planes.

Lat Growth

Whether or not a muscle group is easy or hard to grow depends on a few factors in and out of your control. The one certainty for everyone is that a training stimulus and a surplus of calories yield that growth.

A huge factor out of your control is your body shape. Sure, it's possible to lose and gain fat, and even gain muscle. Those are reasonably within your control. What you can't control are the lengths of your limbs, the precise insertion points of the muscles, and your tendon lengths. All of those internal factors and more are beyond your control.

Those particular factors won't necessarily detract from the growth potential, but they provide a conducive environment for performing some exercises. On the other hand, those factors might provide a less-than-desirable environment for exercise performance.

Think about the difference between a six-foot-tall person performing a squat and a five-foot-tall person performing the same exercise. One of those hypothetical people will have a difficult time in comparison to the other.

Whether you have disadvantageous proportions or near-perfect proportions, training your lats in the available ranges of motion listed yields the best growth due to the quantity of stimuli provided.

Feeling It

Many people don't feel their lats working, even when they do a lat exercise. Feeling a target exercise helps the intentional contraction of the muscle.

Luckily, there are a few ways to work on that. The first option is easy and doable in the comfort of your kitchen. Stand before your counter, place your right palm down on the surface, and straighten your arm.

Next, use your left hand and feel your lat muscle on the right side under your armpit. Press your right hand down as if you're trying to move your hand through the countertop. You'll feel your lat flex. Repeat a few times on each side.

Another simple idea for the basic exercises is to lead each one with your elbow, not your hands. For instance, imagine stuffing your elbows into your pocket during a pull-up or a lat pull-down. If you wear bottoms from the women's section, you'll just have to imagine it has pockets first. The same rule applies to any rowing motion.


There are many exercises for your lats, but none so immortalized as the standard but often misunderstood pull-up. It's time to gain a deeper level of understanding of the pull-up since it is a top-tier exercise for your back. Aside from that, various rows and pullovers add to the return on your physical investment.

Pull-ups, Chin-ups, and the Differences

Before diving into the pull-up, knowing the difference between pull-ups and chin-ups is helpful. On the surface, they're functionally the same; you hang from a bar and pull yourself up until your chin clears the bar.

Looking at it, the difference is in the hand position. You do a pull-up with your forearms pronated (overhanded). You perform the chin-up in supination (underhanded). Nearly all lat exercises use the biceps since you're flexing the elbow joint. Naturally, the biceps flex the elbow. According to EMG studies, the chin-up recruits your biceps more than the lats.

There are also some variations between the two mentioned. One such variant is the neutral grip pull-up. When your palms face each other, that's a neutral grip. Apply to dumbbell exercises of any kind, too.

Yet another variant is the mixed grip pull-up. Like the deadlift, the mixed grip pull-up has one hand pronated and the other supinated. Try the mixed grip and maybe bang out a few chin-ups. If not, make it into an overhanded pull-up. Make sure to alternate which hand is over and under every set to avoid any asymmetries from creeping up on you.

Superficially, this might sound detrimental to the goal of growing the lats, but there is merit in acquiring both pull-up and chin-up efficiency. Not only that but throwing in the neutral grip in your program is a good idea, too; that way, you'll avoid potential overuse injuries from sticking to the same grip all the time.

Performance Issues

The first, most glaring difficulty in any type of pull-up is the inability to perform one. Without the ability to perform a pull-up, your programming has a small hole. That doesn't mean they're essential to all lat training, but they help a lot, and it's a common goal for gymgoers, and it's one worth achieving.

That said, a chin-up is easier than a pull-up because of the extra biceps recruitment, so working up to the goal of a chin-up is a starting point for a good foundation to learn the pull-up.


Without the ability to perform a pull-up of any kind, you need simple progressions to help you attain that benchmark, and a simple starting point is to start performing pull-ups. If you're unable to do this, you want to make yourself weigh less to make this happen. That's why you need one of those big rubber bands found in nearly all commercial gyms.

Loop the band over the center of the pull-up bar, stick one or both feet on it, and let the elasticity lift you higher than you've ever pulled yourself up. The exercise starts off easy and progresses in difficulty the closer to the end of the range of motion you get since the band isn't doing as much work at that point.

As you get better, swap out the band for a thinner band to provide you with less assistance as time goes on.

Negative Reps

Another option is to perform eccentric reps of the pull-up. In simpler terms, an eccentric rep is commonly referred to as a negative rep and refers to a rep where you exert force against resistance but find it difficult to overcome that resistance.

For example, you make it to the top of the pull-up bar with the help of your band, and you remove your feet from the band and hang free. Soon, gravity takes over and pulls you down, despite your hard work. That's a negative rep. You still contract the muscle, only in one portion of the range of motion of the exercise.

Use negative reps sparingly, ideally doing less than five in a given workout, as they tax the musculature heavily. In addition to that, be careful. You don't want gravity to cause you to plummet from the bar while you hang on it and result in an injury.


Rowing exercises are not just for piloting small, motorless boats without the aid of a sail. A rowing exercise is where you work against weight resistance and bring it towards you.

Common variants of rowing exercises are unilateral rows and bilateral rows. From there, do them seated, standing, or bent over, and you do them with cables, bands, barbells, or dumbbells.

The essence of the row is simple. As stated, with all of the rowing and pull-up motions, imagine trying to stuff your elbows in your pockets. This applies to all forms of rowing, be it bilateral or unilateral. Further, it applies regardless of the tool in use.

Starting with a unilateral row is easier to get the hang of. In addition to the pocket imagery, make it a point to slide your humerus against your torso as you perform the exercise. Finally, lead the motion with your shoulder blade.

Done correctly, your elbow won't travel that far behind you, and nor should it.

Once you have proficiency in that variant, try the bilateral versions.

Barbell Rows

Caution reigns on this one. You have no extra support when performing a barbell row, so the support comes from within. That means your core musculature should support you, and that means extra stress on the lower back. Again, be cautious.

Given that the barbell row is more technical, pay close attention to your torso angle in relation to your hip joint. A 90-degree angle is a good way to perform it, as is a 45-degree angle or anything in between. Use a light barbell, practice the techniques to really feel your lats working, and pick a form that works best for you.

Like the pull-up, anyone may perform a barbell row with a pronated or a supinated grip. The same intricacies apply regarding biceps recruitment, too.

If you need to work up to the barbell row, place the straight bar attachment on the lower pulley of a cable machine. The same rules apply without the extra systemic stress on your lower back.

The chest-supported row is another modification of the barbell row that's lower back-friendly. The range of motion is almost identical; only this variant requires an incline bench. Instead of lying on the bench on your back, flip the opposite way, adjust your breasts if needed, and lie on your stomach. Let your arms hang, and use the same imagery as described to perform the row.

For best results, use two dumbbells, as it's easier to position than a barbell, allowing for a greater range of motion.

It's a Pullover, Not a Cardigan

Pullovers are a lesser-seen lat exercise, but they're undeniably fantastic for helping you tax the lats, and they're one of the best exercises to help you feel them working. Think back to the earlier example of imagining pressing your hand through your countertop. That's the general idea with a pullover.

Take a straight bar cable attachment, and set up the cable machine so the pulley is in the highest position.

Grab the bar, step back with your arms straight, and a slight bend in the hips. Let your lats enjoy the stretch in that position.

Move the bar towards the floor from there while keeping your arms straight. Repeat often.

While the pullover is a good exercise, it isn't the type of exercise that swells your lats with solid muscle. That doesn't mean it's without utility. Long-time trainer and knowledgeable fitness writer Bryan Krahn offers a great suggestion:

"Because this is primarily a hypertrophy and body composition program, I do this movement first to 'wake up' the lats and upper back. Often when I do pull-ups first (especially weighted) I can get caught up in completing the reps 'at any cost,' namely using the biceps (and momentum). Doing this exercise first gets the lats engaged and ready to work."

If you have trouble feeling your lats contract, this is a great option to help you since you don't want to shirk your lat workouts simply because you don't always feel them working.

Daily Training

Theoretically, you train a muscle group every single day of the week. Those with heavy manual labor jobs do it all the time, without resting between sets and warming up or cooling down. You may do this in the gym, too, but forethought is paramount.

First, there's a difference between learning to do an exercise, like the pull-up and training the muscle to facilitate growth. The latter requires sufficient recovery through rest, sleep, and food. Remember, the act of lifting is catabolic. The anabolic processes occur when you leave the gym.

Second, to train a muscle group daily, having a goal helps. For instance, learning the pull-up. Suppose you told a pianist, guitarist, flutist, or any type of instrumentalist that they should practice twice a week. In that case, they'd look at you dismissively and either laugh silently to themselves or audibly at you. In doing so, they'd be correct, if not a little mean, since practice makes you better at something.

With workout programs, fatigue and stress of the musculature is the name of the game. To train daily, you need far less fatigue. Without fatigue, you're ensuring proper form and performance of an exercise. The cost is a lack of volume on the exercise itself.

A lack of volume means less growth potential. It all goes back to priorities; if you want to learn how to do a pull-up, practice the variants daily in a way that doesn't leave you sore or fatigued in the lats.

Do this by doing a few reps per set and doing each set with enough rest in between to maximize how fresh you are when approaching each set. A good guideline would be one to three reps for one to three sets to start. Try doing one to three reps for three to five sets when it gets easier. Slowly build on this over time.

Train your lats like you would everything else.

No Melted Wings

The takeaways to having a stellar set of lats are few but crucial.

First, get acquainted with the muscle and learn to feel them working. Second, train them in a variety of angles. The dumbbell rows, the bent-over barbell rows, and the pull-up are great for allowing your muscles to work across a variety of planes of movement. Train them all, train them often, eat enough, and maybe reach the sun someday.

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